Used to be, when I was in the mood for a jibarito — the regionally famous Puerto Rican-American sandwich — I had to go to the Humboldt Park neighborhood.
A jibarito, if you didn’t know, is created by frying the squashed flat halves of a green plantain, smearing them with garlic mayo, and adding a protein, usually beef, plus a few leaves of lettuce and tomato slices.
The jibarito is a “made in Chicago” original food, developed relatively recently in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago. As Monica Eng relates in our book, this sandwich was invented by Juan Figueroa, owner of Chicago’s Borinquen restaurant, who told Eng, “I was reading this newspaper from Puerto Rico, and I came across a recipe for something called sandwich de platano [plantain sandwich]. I didn’t have nothing else to do, so I went into the kitchen and made it.” As Eng reports, Figueroa sliced, flattened, and fried green plantains, added some beef, mayo, and American cheese, and on that day made Chicago culinary history.
Carne asada, grilled beef, is the default protein for jibaritos. As I drove to get my jibarito at Jibaritos on Harlem, I remembered my last visit to Puerto Rico when we went for a drive on the Pork Road, a stretch of highway south of San Juan. On the Pork Road are dozens of drive-in restaurants set up to serve motorists who frequently stop at several different restaurants in an afternoon, tasting at each the lechon — the whole roasted pig — for which Puerto Rico is justly renowned. The lechon is roasted low and slow for hours over hot coals, chopped into manageable bites, served with many sides and almost always with rice and peas.
My lechon jibarito from Jibaritos on Harlem was probably the best I’ve had. The pork was moist and rich, not at all greasy, and garlic mayonnaise beautifully complements the meat. Planks of fried plantain were made to order, crisp and light with almost pastry-like flakiness. Rice and beans, the simplest of dishes, was superb, and I suspect some lard was added to make it all lusher and more flavorful. In this version of the sandwich, I detected no American cheese (thank goodness and thank you, Saint Lawrence, patron saint of cooking!).
Jibaritos on Harlem is about half as far from Oak Park as Humboldt Park, so a much shorter ride to sate jibarito yearnings. I had to smile, though. When I was walking out, I glanced up at the sign that proclaimed, “Jibaritos, Authentic Puerto Rican Food.” The word “authenticity” is slippery, and a jibarito is no more authentic Puerto Rican food than deep dish pizza is authentic Italian food or flaming saganaki is authentic Greek food. Jibaritos, like these other “ethnic foods,” were inspired by other cultures but created in Chicago, one of the most fertile regions for developing and introducing culinary creations, thanks in large part to immigrants who come to this country, bringing with them the culinary traditions of their homelands.
Diversity makes for deliciousness.